Much like the Global Warming Solutions Act, which does virtually nothing to solve Global Warming but stands ahead of most or all other states in the Union… these lobbying and ethics reforms were more political posturing than meaningful reform. They do nothing to curb the influence of big money in our political system. They leave a thoroughly rotten system to fester in its rot, allowing lobbyists to run amok through the halls of power… in some cases (as the Beacon Hill chatter goes) even being allowed access to state legislators’ email accounts to send emails pretending to be that legislator.
During the “ethics reform” political charade in 2008, Jill Stein and I submitted testimony to the Governor’s Task Force on Public Integrity as the co-chairs of the Green-Rainbow Party. The full testimony is below. Note that despite of our calls for increased transparency in matters of state and local government, the “Governor’s Task Force on Public Integrity” actually met behind closed doors, in secret. As Shirley Kressel, once called the Ralph Nader of Boston, put it:
The decision of this Public Integrity Task Force to meet in secret appears to confirm public suspicions that the actions of our elected officials — even when they are convened to restore ethics and accountability – cannot stand up to the light of day.
Not surprisingly, the Task Force and Legislature failed to enact a single one of our 4 recommendations laid out in our testimony:
Testimony to the Governor’s Task Force on Public Integrity, 12/3/2008
Eli Beckerman, Jill Stein, Co-chairs, Green-Rainbow Party of Massachusetts, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
We would like to thank the Governor for starting the conversation on public integrity, and the members of this Task Force for the time they are devoting to this important subject. From the perspective of the Green-Rainbow Party, influence-peddling in the halls of government is an extremely serious threat to the ability of government to act in the best interests of the people. It is an incredibly deep-rooted problem – and you will be challenged to fully address every aspect in a 60-day task force.
There is an overwhelming sense of deja-vu in our rediscovery of the importance of public integrity. This subject was on everyone’s mind in the late 1970s when state senators were convicted of extortion on public construction projects. More than two and a half decades later, we are saddled with the costly consequences of back-room deals for tax breaks and corporate welfare won through influence-peddling. We suspect that such influences are to a large extent responsible for current financial woes such as the crippling Big Dig debt that is breaking the back of both our highway and public transportation systems and the enormous structural deficit that is squeezing our health care and schools.
In the late 1970’s, the Ward Commission met for 32 months in response to corruption in public contracting – and they uncovered systemic waste, fraud, and abuse. According to their report, “it was not a matter of a few crooks, some bad apples which spoil the lot . . .The pattern is too broad and pervasive for that easy excuse. At those crucial points where money and power came together, the system has been rotten.” The report concluded that serious campaign finance reform was needed to overhaul a system that was fundamentally vulnerable to legal corruption. It took the people of Massachusetts to put serious campaign finance reform on the table, specifically by passing the Clean Elections law in 1998 by an overwhelming 2:1 majority in a statewide referendum. But this critical reform was strangled in its cradle as the Legislature refused to adequately fund the law. And when the Supreme Judicial Court weighed in to force adequate funding, the Legislature repealed the reform on a voice vote. And here we are today, still wondering why we have public integrity problems.
Let us be clear about one thing: As long as we have a system of campaign financing that makes the careers of public officials dependent upon money donated by private interests with business before the Legislature, then we will not have a government that puts the interests of the people first. No level of expanded reporting requirements and stricter enforcement of existing campaign finance laws will make up for the fact that we are essentially running a system of legalized bribery. We have to address the fundamental problem.
The many infractions of existing laws and regulations that we observe are to be expected due to the gray areas that are created by the flow of money from private interests to elected officials. For example, current laws outlaw “bundling” of campaign donations. But de facto bundling is in fact very much a part of the practice in the current system. Giving money in exchange for official actions is bribery, but giving money because a legislator is letting your corporation write laws is legal. There is no way to police the mess we create when we allow private money to flow directly to politicians.
Addressing the fundamental problem of money in politics has other important benefits in terms of restoring the health of our democracy. The two states that passed Clean Elections laws around the same time as Massachusetts, but actually kept them on the books, have some lessons for us all. With an abysmal 84% of our state legislative races uncontested this year, we should take note that in Maine, the state experienced a 40% increase in the number of contested elections in their first year under a Clean Elections system. In 2000, 31% of primary candidates opted to run clean; in 2004 it was up to 71%. Arizona is another success story for public financing. You might have heard of Janet Napolitano, who was just chosen as Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security. Well, she was the first clean-elections governor in our nation’s history, and this is what she said about the experience:
“When I ran for attorney general the old-fashioned way, where you basically spend two-thirds of your time raising money. And I will tell you, now I get to spend my time out actually talking with voters, as opposed to raising money. It’s just is a different dynamic altogether.”
Beyond money, the healthy functioning of the Legislature in serving the public interest is also impeded by the lack of transparency, as it is not subject to the Public Records Law and Open Meeting Law. This helps to enable a culture of back-room deals and lobbyist-dictated legislation. Many times the specifics of legislation has already been settled in secret meetings before it ever gets to a public hearing or a release for public scrutiny. Tens of millions of dollars are forwarded to “public-private partnership” which avoid competition and oversight. Transparency is a key element in ensuring public integrity.
In light of the serious problems outlined above, we offer these four recommendations for your consideration:
1. Re-enact and fund a comprehensive, voluntary, public campaign financing system giving candidates the option to run without the corrupting influence of big money campaign contributions.
2. Establish a citizens’ review board of all public contracting and increase transparency and accountability over quasi-public agencies.
3. Link the databases of lobbying expenditures, campaign contributions, and corporate officers with information about what bills are being advocated on behalf of which corporations. It should not require infinite citizen research to discover these connections.
4. Subject the Legislature to both the Public Records Law and Open Meeting Law in order to increase transparency and accountability.
ADDENDUM – The costs of influence-peddling to taxpayers
1. The cost of the Big Dig project escalated from $2.6 billion at the outset to $14.6 billion by the time of com
pletion, and will likely rise to at least $22 billion by the time the debts are paid off. Over $2 billion in Big Dig related debt was put on the back of the MBTA. And T-riders are paying for it through fare increases. Another $2 billion in debt was handed to the Turnpike authority, laying the groundwork for its current fiscal crisis. In spite of suspected overcharges, the state’s cost recovery efforts were minimal and perfunctory. In addition, cost overruns were routine and work quality suffered from lacking oversight. Innumerable observers noted the cozy relationship between contractors and government oversight bodies that enabled waste and abuse:
- “They just ignored me. They didn’t take me seriously, because they knew they had connections in other places.”- Jordan Levy, former Massport board member commenting on his attempts to question Bechtel (Boston Globe, 7/24/06)
- “They were all married to each other.” – Judge Edward Ginzburg, hired by Mass. Turnpike Authority to investigate tunnel leaks, but resigned, citing lack of cooperation from those involved.
- “Technically, Bechtel/Parsons-Brinckerhoff works for and answers to the MTA. In reality, they have meshed into an impenetrable web of mutual protection.” David Bernstein, (Boston Phoenix, 7/27/06)
- “They’re well-connected in Washington and on Beacon Hill . . . They’ve been blamed for lots of failures, but the repercussions have been fairly minimal.” – Jeffrey Berry, Tufts University political science professor, commenting on Bechtel’s ability to evade accountability, AP story, 7/15/06
- “The completion of our review has been hindered because Big Dig officials have withheld documents under a claim of attorney-client privilege. In addition, public data and documents have reportedly been destroyed and other public documents have been reportedly removed from Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (Turnpike) offices in early 2000.”- Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General Report to the Treasurer of the Commonwealth, March 2001
- “It’s not just lining up the guy who is the building inspector. They would co-opt the whole supervising, regulatory infrastructure.” Laton McCartney, author “Friends in High Places”, a book on Bechtel.
This cozy relationship between contractors and government – which is ultimately so costly to taxpayers – is hardly surprising given the routine transfer of large sums of money from Big Dig contractors to key political figures through the current system of campaign finance. Examples of these campaign contributions include the following:
- A Boston Globe inquiry in the early 1990’s found that 77 executives of firms with Big Dig contracts showered more than $100,000 on Republican politicians William Weld and Paul Cellucci.
- In 2002, Sen. John Kerry’s political action committee pocketed $25,000 checks from the founder and CEO of Modern Continental Construction, the late Lelio “Les” Marino, and another Big Dig contractor, Jay Cashman.
- 1999, the Federal Department of Transportation uncovered an apparent financing scheme in which the project had overpaid $129.8 million to American International Group for worker compensation and liability insurance that wasn’t needed, then had allowed the insurer to keep the money in a trust and invest it in the market. Attempts to recover funds were blocked in Congress with the help of Senator John Kerry. AIG officials donated tens of thousands of dollars to Senator Kerry’s presidential campaign.
- In May 2006, then Governor Mitt Romney returned more than $3,500 from executives of Aggregate Industries after six employees were federally indicted for delivery of 5000 truckloads of substandard concrete to the Big Dig. A Romney spokesman said the governor had no plans to return any other Big Dig donations – including those from employees of Modern Continental
- Other candidates who received money from Aggregate included Robert Traviglini, Salvatore DiMasi, Shannon O’Brien ($2000 as state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate).
- State Attorney General Tom Reilly, kept $12,850 from Dig firms, records show. [BH 8/8/05] He was criticized for lack of vigor in pursuit of cost-recovery for overcharges.
2. According to the Boston Globe (April 5, 2006), health industry lobbyists spent $7.5 million in 2005, the year preceding the new “Massachusetts mandate” health care. This spending, the Globe concluded, paid off for some of the biggest players. The business community, for example, succeeded in reducing a proposed steep tax on employers that don’t provide health benefits to employees to a modest $295 per employee fee. Associated Industries of Massachusetts – which spent $279,000 on lobbying that year – was “instrumental in the change”. The group’s president, Richard C. Lord, admitted that AIM had devoted more time and resources to healthcare than ever before, and described this expenditure as “a good investment”. Lord was also appointed to the health insurance board that oversees the plan. The bill was not released to either the legislature or the public until the night before the vote, effectively precluding scrutiny by the public and lawmakers. House Speaker DiMasi, (now under investigation for his relationship to an unregistered lobbyist-friend who won a recent lucrative state software contract), spoke openly about the secretive nature of the health care deliberations, saying the negotiators were operating under a confidentiality pact.
In January of 2008, the Boston Globe reported budget-busting costs for this lobbyist-crafted health care bill – with costs exceeding projections by $245 million this year, and expected to increase by $400 million the following year. Costs to health care consumers likewise continue to skyrocket. And while many previously uninsured have acquired coverage under the reform, the adequacy of this coverage is seriously compromised by the stripped-down, streamlined nature of the plans.
3. During the writing of the 1998 energy deregulation bill, electric utility lobbyists convinced the Legislature to sock ratepayers with a $1 billion per year bill to pay for the bad investments of the electric companies. This is 30% of some families’ monthly